A medieval city
Fougères' development began in earnest in the 12th century: the history of the town is inseparable from the history of its castle. In times of war, the town was often devastated. But in times of peace, Fougères' location at the crossroads of several major trading routes brought the town wealth and prestige. The oldest parts of town, in the shadow of the castle on the banks of the Nançon, were once the site of intense and lucrative economic activity. Wool and bark mills remind us that Fougères once specialised in the production and dying of textiles, as well as leather tanning.
Eglise Saint-Sulpice is a marvel of Gothic architecture, and testament to the wealth of the town in this period: inside is one of the region's most remarkable granite altar pieces, the "Tanners' Altar."
The medieval town also spread out onto the plateau overlooking the castle. The high walls which once protected the homes of the city's wealthy traders and bourgeois property owners still stand guard over the Old Town. The belfry, at once watchtower and symbol of the political freedoms secured by the townspeople of Fougères, has been ringing its bells daily since 1397.
In the 18th century, a series of great fires reduced most of the timber-framed medieval houses of the Old Town to rubble. On the recommendation of Parisian architect Gabriel, the grand townhouses of the Rue Nationale were constructed in this period. The use of elegant stone became compulsory, and only the very rich were able to afford such majestic homes. The ground floor arcades were home to a variety of shops.
The upheaval of the French Revolution also left its mark on the town: the Chouans, rebels from Brittany and the Vendée who opposed the new French Republic, did battle in the streets of Fougères. In doing so, they followed the lead of the Marquis de la Rouerie, whose grand townhouse is still standing today. He was the founder of the Association Bretonne, a group of counter-revolutionary aristocrats Romantic authors Châteaubriand, Hugo and Balzac all found inspiration in Fougères. Indeed Balzac chose Fougères as the setting for the first instalment of La Comédie Humaine: Les Chouans. The book includes a thoroughly detailed and realistic description of the town as viewed from the Jardin Public.
The Industrial Revolution
The wave of scientific and industrial progress which swept across Europe in the 19th century certainly left its mark on Fougères. By the 1850s, shoemaking was a major speciality here. The Industrial Revolution was under way, and Fougères was a powerhouse of the Breton economy. Factories began to spring up, primarily in the new district of Bonabry. These factories were a vibrant addition to the urban landscape, with their ornate exterior decorations designed by Odorico, the Italian mosaic specialists with workshops in Rennes. Various public buildings were established in this period. The theatre, with its façade of white Anjou stone, was a new landmark in the town centre. The sparkling décor of the Italian-style auditorium still draws large crowds today. The theatre was soon followed by a new library, a grand market hall in steel and glass, the train station, the Bonabry church... Some of these buildings are still in use today, while others have succumbed to the ravages of time.
Close to nature
In 1944, Fougères was hit hard by Allied bombing coinciding with the D-Day landings. Whole streets of the medieval city were destroyed and rebuilt with more modern materials. Successive economic crises decimated the town's industrial base, as factories closed and jobs were lost in the 1970s. But Fougères never lost its inimitable charm! It has always remained a charming, historic town where a simple stroll takes visitors on a whirlwind tour of different ages and styles. More recent constructions bear witness to the considerable efforts made to respect and embellish the town's historic heritage in the 20th century. Last but by no means least, the unspoilt landscapes which surround Fougères have been a source of serenity and inspiration for many a poet and solitary wanderer. The Jardin Public is a spectacle not to be missed, offering a breath-taking panoramic view of the castle and medieval town. Other parks, such as the Jardin du Val Nançon and the Carrière du Rocher Coupé (the old quarry) add to the natural beauty which is one of Fougères' greatest assets.